BOWL OF RED

The Baltimore Sun

Cookbook author Jane Butel has campaigned for years to have chili declared America's national dish. She failed only by degree.

Chili, lovingly known as the "bowl of red," is certainly the national dish of winter.

"What's not to like?" asked Butel, author of the new Chili Madness: A Passionate Cookbook, which updates her best-seller of 30 years ago.

"It is easy to make. It comes in one pot. It improves with time and reheating. It makes enough for a crowd. And it is exciting to the human taste buds."

According to Butel's research, chili either originated on the long cattle drives out of beef-rich Texas, or it was inspired in the 1600s by a beautiful nun who recited the recipe after emerging from a trance. She never left her convent in Spain, but magically knew of the chile plants of the American Southwest.

Chili was popularized in San Antonio in the 1800s when, in the evenings, townspeople would stroll the plazas and sample the different recipes offered from carts by the chili queens.

Soon enough, there were chili parlors and chili societies and chili cook-offs and chefs who swear their chili recipes will die with them.

Stephanie Anderson, who set out to collect the best restaurant chili recipes for her cookbook, Killer Chili, was rebuffed by every chef she asked in Cincinnati, home of the famous "Cincinnati Chili," which is served over pasta and layered with cheese, beans and onions.

"Some of them just laughed and hung up on me," she said. "Others told me they would tell me, but then they'd have to kill me. Others said that no one at the restaurant knows the whole recipe because each cook goes into the kitchen alone and adds just two ingredients."

One of the charms of chili is that it can be made with just about any meat - short ribs, sausage, wild game or seafood - just about anything from your spice cabinet and just about anything from the vegetable bin of your refrigerator. Marion Cunningham writes in The Fanny Farmer Cookbook, "There are probably more chili recipes than chocolate chip cookie recipes."

Nancy Longo, chef of Baltimore's Pierpoint restaurant, makes a traditional chili, but she serves it over pasta in a tip of the hat to a Cincinnati chef who has become a close friend.

"I am a purist, I guess," she said, while ladling up a steaming bowl of her chili. "There are certain things you should not completely dismantle for the sake of being modern. We should not completely discard the traditional."

Traditional chili recipes call for beef in chunks or coarsely ground; onion; garlic; and the classic seasonings of cumin and oregano.

And chiles - whole or roasted and ground. The hotter, the better, some say.

It is the amount of capsaicin in the chile membrane that determines its heat. And it is not water-soluble, which is why all the beer in the world won't put out the chili fire in your mouth. Eating bread, which can rub the capsaicin off your tongue and the lining of your mouth, is one way to provide relief from the heat.

But what sets chili apart - as much as its heat - is its sustained regionalism. Even after 200 years, Texans consider the addition of tomatoes and beans to chili to be tantamount to a criminal offense. And every chili cook in every part of the country has his own sacred recipe.

In a country where food preparation is so homogenized that we are all eating the same things - sort of like the dinner equivalent of parity in the National Football League - that's worth noting.

this is chili?

Here are some of the unusual ingredients we found during our search for the essential chili recipe:

* Chocolate, blue cheese or masa harina. When the Aztecs used chocolate, it was bitter, so its inclusion in chili should not be a surprise. Blue cheese and masa harina, a corn flour, can be used to take some of the sting out of chili.

* Lobsters, crabs, okra or catfish. Every region is entitled to its own chili. The Northeasterners, with their love of lobster, and the Northwesterners, with their Dungeness crabs, are no different. Some Louisiana cooks claim their gumbo, which has okra, is a version of chili. And there is a recipe for catfish chili from Mississippi.

* Tequila . A splash is added to "housebreak" really hot chili. Of course, you are free to have yours in a shot glass on the side.

* Chickpeas and dried fruit. Moroccan-vegetarian chili is made with chickpeas, apricots and prunes and served with toasted pita or on a bed of steamed couscous. Some might say that whatever this dish is, it is not chili.

Sources: cookbooks, interviews and Web sites

Susan Reimer

nancy longo's chili

(serves 10)

12 cloves garlic, chopped fine

1 bunch garlic shoots, chopped fine (see note)

1 bunch green onions, chopped fine

3 large yellow onions, cut into 1/2 -inch dice

2 tablespoons butter

1 pound ground beef

1 pound ground pork

4 cups diced plum tomatoes, canned, with juice

1 cup low-sodium tomato juice

1 cup cooked pinto beans

1 cup kidney beans

1 cup beef demiglace or 2 cups good beef broth

3 chipotle peppers in adobo, chopped to paste

1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

2 tablespoons brown sugar

3 tablespoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons ground coriander

3 tablespoons chili powder

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon kosher salt (if needed)

1 box angel-hair pasta (about 16 ounces), cooked according to package directions

2 cups double Gloucester with chives cheese or a good sharp cheddar

Saute garlic, garlic shoots, green onions and yellow onions in butter until translucent. Add beef and pork and saute until cooked.

Add tomatoes with their juice, beans and remaining ingredients except pasta and cheese. (Use the salt only if needed, because the beef broth may be a bit salty if it is not homemade.)

Cook the chili until it has thickened and has a gravylike consistency. Serve over angel-hair pasta with cheese on top.

Note: If you can't find garlic shoots, substitute 3 more cloves of garlic.

Courtesy of chef Nancy Longo of Pierpoint restaurant

Per serving: : 585 calories, 35 grams protein, 22 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 60 grams carbohydrate, 9 grams fiber, 89 milligrams cholesterol, 1,034 milligrams sodium

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